Archibald Alexander Leach was born January 18th 1904 in Bristol, England. By the age of 14 he had left school and had persuaded his father to let him join an acrobatic company in London called, The Bob Pender Troupe. At the age of 18 Leach went with the Pender Troupe for a tour of America. After 2 years the company returned to England but Leach decided to stay and try his hand at acting. In 1932 he finally landed a 7-year contract with Paramount Studios. The Studio immediately re named him Cary Grant. And decided that he was best suited to debonair roles. Grant tended to get the roles that Gary Cooper (who was a bigger star at the time) turned down.
Jack Harley JR, (The Tin Man in Wizard of Oz) another Paramount actor and friend of Grant stated “Cary was at the bottom of the barrel when it came to parts the first choice went to Gary Cooper the second went to George Raft. Even Fred MacMurry was getting better parts than Cary” (Nancy Nelson: 2003,71)
Grant earned $450 per week. He worked Monday to Saturday, fifty-two weeks of the year like all contract actors. Paramount operated a strict factory line; much the same way as Henry Ford did with car production, churning out one film per week. The studio also shaped Grant’s persona. Paramount’s publicity department wanted to promote Grant as suave, debonair, a man about town, but the studio’s press machine didn’t always get it right. Between marriages Grant shared a house with another Paramount actor Randolph Scott. They were pictured relaxing at home, eating dinner and doing the washing up together. Gossip columnists such as Hedda Hopper and Edith Gwynn picked up on this cosy photo-shoot and immediately started to question Grant and Scott’s sexuality. Grant decided that such homophobic comments didn’t deserve a reply. Even after 5 marriages and his death the accusations of homosexuality still circulated. These accusations culminated in several damming articles and biographies, the most brazen was written by Charles Hingham and Roy Moseley called Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, published in 1989. Virginia Cherrill (Grants first wife) speaking in 1989 four years after he died said “I read a few pages in a recent book about Cary and knew right away it was complete fabrication”. (Graham McCann:1996,153)
Two events in Grant’s time with Paramount serve to illustrate just how much of a commodity actors were in 1930’s Hollywood. The first saw Grant given six months off from filming because he had worked so hard. The studio had a backlog of Grant films ready for release and didn’t need him. The second was that when on loan to another studio Paramount had the right to veto what the actor wanted to star in. In 1936, fed up with his treatment at Paramount Grant took the unprecedented step of buying out his contract and at the terrible risk of disappearing into oblivion became independent. “He was the first major talking picture star to have no return contract” (Peter Bogdanovitch: Biography Channel Sky T.V,8th May 2004). His first two films as an independent actor were for Columbia and RKO. He needed to prove himself so much that he had to work on both at the same time, Columbia by day and RKO by night.
Once Grant had established himself as a true screen presence he spent the early 1940s working on screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday and Arsenic and Old Lace. The enclosed still from His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell shows that Grant’s perceived persona still shines through; masking the true nature of the character he plays i.e. a hard-hitting journalist who scuppers his ex wife’s chance of remarrying. The bottom line is that Grant could take an essentially nasty character, and make him lovable.
Grant was now so secure in his ability as a freelance actor that he chose not to work for specific studios but for favored Directors such as Howard Hawks, George Cukor and Alfred Hitchcock. With Hitchcock he made the transition from screwball comedy to sophisticated suspense. It is difficult to know if his early association with the studio system manufactured Grants persona or if he really was a charming witty effortlessly debonair human being? He himself is quoted as saying “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant, even I want to be Cary Grant”. He chose to maintain this image by turning down the role as Humbert in the film Lolita. Also when working with Audrey Hepburn on Charade, Grant, aware of the twenty five year age difference, persuaded the screen writer Peter Stone to re write both actors parts. Grant insisted that Hepburn’s character do the running.
In real life Grant was dating Dyan Cannon who was thirty-five years his junior. He was an astute businessman and in the 1950’s set up his own film production company thereby receiving a portion of the profits, and in some cases all the profits. He also used his screen persona when he became a director of the cosmetic giant Faberge. They paid him handsomely and were rewarded well. On the day the directorship was announced Faberge’s stock rose by two points. He was not so well rewarded by the film industry. Grant was nominated for an Oscar just twice in his long and illustrious career. First for Penny Serenade (1941) and the second for None but the Lonely Heart (1944). He didn’t win. The academy’s lack of recognition was highlighted by screen writer Peter Stone who, when accepting the Best Screenplay Oscar
for Father Goose, said that Grant “keeps winning these things for other people” (Graham McCann:1996, 182). It took the Academy forty years to acknowledge his great contribution to motion pictures. He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1970, long after the studio system had died. Could this have been the price he paid for his independence?